Congress Approves DOE Waste Classification Rules

* The Congressional Defense Authorization Conference Committee agreed recently to allow the Department of Energy (DOE) to rename millions of gallons of high-level radioactive waste in South Carolina and Idaho in order to avoid removing it from underground storage tanks.

The waste is the highly radioactive byproduct of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 specified that the waste must be removed from underground storage tanks, stabilized and stored in a deep underground repository.

In 1999, DOE proposed to rename the waste in order to facilitate fast, cheap cleanup at sites nationwide, including Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL), Savannah River Site and Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) sued to oppose the proposal, arguing that it was a violation of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.

In 2003, a federal judge in Idaho ruled in favor of NRDC and found DOE's proposal to be illegal. DOE appealed the ruling and oral argument was held just two days before Congress acted.

Geoffrey Fettus, of NRDC, said, "In order to give the Energy Department authority it couldn't get from a court of law, Congress has placed critical ... drinking water sources at risk of radioactive contamination."

The measure allows DOE to fill the underground storage tanks with grout in order to stabilize the waste, which represents 1% of some of the most deadly radioactive waste at these sites. The waste would then remain on-site indefinitely. While proponents argue that the plan will be faster, cheaper and safer to public and worker health, many are concerned that the grout is unreliable and may allow the waste to leak into groundwater resources.

Brice Smith, of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, which has questioned the reliability of the grout, said that extreme temperature differences between the waste in the grout and the environment surrounding the tanks may create cracks in the grout, which would compromise its reliability.

The bill only applies to waste at INEEL and the Savannah River Site, although representatives of Washington State are concerned that it may eventually apply to Hanford. Washington Representative Jay Inslee said, "This deal allows DOE to establish a dangerous precedent for Hanford on reclassifying high-level nuclear waste because it suggests that less cleanup is needed if the name of the waste is arbitrarily changed."

Decisionmakers in Idaho have issued approval of the Congressional action, despite initial skepticism about the proposal. Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina sponsored the initial legislation. The states are slated to receive more than $250 million dollars as a result of the action.

Debate regarding the proposal continues nationwide. In an editorial for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Robert Alvarez, former Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary of DOE and Georgia State Senator Regina Thomas, said, "High-level wastes by any other name are still just that: the largest, most dangerous legacy of the nuclear arms race. They must be treated as such."

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